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Find those Data Champions!!

Typical to most BI projects, the biggest challenge as a consultant is to quickly gain an understanding of the client’s data. Oftentimes I get placed in a room with all IT personnel, and I am expected to get up to speed with all the systems and data as I gather requirements to build out some reports or a data warehouse. Working with IT is very helpful for understanding the use and impact of the chosen technologies on the project; however, it often does not help me understand the business. I don’t only mean understanding the business drivers or KPIs, but also, how the data is used to accurately monitor these drivers.
If you have worked on a BI project you know what I am talking about. Take for example a statement of, “We always calculate the total number of widgets by adding X and Z together…well, except for when W = 0, or it is a weekend, or the Bears win the Super Bowl”…there are always exceptions! When designing a data warehouse it is very important to understand how the data is used because it can have an impact on the final design.
On top of working with IT, some clients also provide schema diagrams and a few sample queries, some give access to the database and just expect you to look around until you “understand”, and some don’t understand the data themselves!
I have been in all of these situations. So what can we do to get the ball rolling fast and help ensure success of a BI engagement?
In most organizations there are people that just know the data. Sometimes these people are included in the BI / Data Warehousing projects, sometimes they are not. Sometimes these are the people that everyone goes to with questions on how to pull the data into Excel and analyze it, and sometimes these people remain hidden in the organization and get along day to day by efficiently analyzing the data and getting their work done. Either way these people do exist, we’ll call these people the data champions.
One way to help ensure success on a BI project is to make sure these data champions are an intricate part of the requirements gathering and testing process. They know faster than anyone else if the data looks correct, even with a quick glance. I know it sounds simple, but I have found that these people are sometimes left out of project teams because they appear to be too busy, or as I previously mentioned, they are unknown. Even with all the schema diagrams and queries in the world, it is hard to replace the knowledge that these data champions have. Having them available as a resource throughout a BI project can not only make the requirements gathering and development process easier, it can help ensure that the data is accurate and used properly to allow for optimal business analysis.
Before engaging in a BI project, canvas the organization to find those data champions and get them involved early and often!

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Mike Burger

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